Food: Easy East Asian vegetable dishes

Anyone can cook Chinese food by using common ingredients found at the store.

Grill 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Grill 521
(photo credit: MCT)
My friend Nina Simonds, who introduced me to Chinese cuisine in her classes in Paris and in Taiwan, is the person I associate most with classic East Asian cooking. Today, Simonds is more interested in an easier style of Asian cooking.
“I want to help people realize that they can cook Chinese food from common ingredients available at the supermarket,” she told me recently over lunch at my favorite dim sum restaurant in California.
“Elaborate restaurant dishes no longer fuel my ideas for cooking,” writes Simonds in her latest book, Simple Asian Meals; “rather it is the home-style food that my Chinese family feasted on each night that inspires me.”
She is referring to the family with whom she lived when she moved to Taiwan at age 19. “The food was quite basic, but the flavors were fresh and appealing... Vegetables were generally prepared simply, like a plate of stir-fried bean sprouts garnished with garlic chives, or seasonal vegetables flash-cooked with chopped garlic, salt, and rice wine.”
Simonds focuses on quick-cooking dishes that don’t need many ingredients. She uses packaged cut vegetables to keep preparation time to a minimum. To have ginger and garlic on hand for use throughout the week, she recommends chopping about a quarter cup of each and refrigerating them in plastic bags.
With a few key seasonings, even common foods like cabbage, carrots and zucchini gain Asian flair. Simonds’s grilled lemon-soy zucchini is dressed with a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and sugar and is on the table in minutes. A no-cook peanut-coconut dressing accompanies her platter of spaghetti with tofu and shredded raw vegetables – cucumber, carrots, sweet red pepper and bean sprouts. The dressing is made of peanut butter blended with light coconut milk, soy sauce, lime juice, brown sugar and red pepper flakes.
Simonds is flexible when it comes to traditional Chinese flavorings and techniques. If you don’t have Chinese chili paste, it’s perfectly OK to use red pepper flakes. Although Chinese cooks generally use peanut oil to stirfry, Simonds often uses olive oil. If you don’t have Chinese black vinegar, Worcestershire sauce is the best substitute. To precook firm vegetables before stir-frying them, instead of sticking to the old-fashioned technique of shallow-frying, Simonds finds that parboiling, steaming and roasting are good alternative methods.
To accompany grilled or barbecued dishes, Simonds serves Asian hot and sour slaw, made with shredded coleslaw vegetables from the supermarket that she stir-fries with chopped ginger, red pepper flakes, diced sweet red pepper and shredded carrots and then heats briefly with a little rice wine and a dressing of soy sauce, sugar, Chinese black vinegar and salt.
Thai cooks have developed a variety of flavorful vegetable dishes that require little or no cooking. Vatcharin Bhumichitr, author of Thai Vegetarian Cooking, points out that the category of “yam dishes” is unique to Thai cooking. “The word yam means something akin to salad, but also includes lightly cooked vegetables... Yam dishes are a kaleidoscope of strong flavours – sour lemon and very hot chili, balanced by saltiness and sugar sweetness.”
Bhumichitr, a Thai restaurateur in London, writes that there are hundreds of variations of such dishes, which are usually served as appetizers. “The taste is essentially sharp and because of this, yam dishes are often brought out just ahead of the main meal as an accompaniment to drinks – they go very well with strong spirits... They are really too hot to be used as single dish meals without a generous helping of rice.”
Several of Bhumichitr’s oil-free dressings for these appetizers remind me of my Yemenite mother-inlaw’s s’hug (hot sauce), which she made from fresh hot peppers and garlic. If you’d like to give your cucumber-and-tomato salad new flavors, you could prepare his cucumber salad, dressed with a sauce of pounded garlic and fresh hot peppers blended with lemon juice, soy sauce and sugar; the salad is finished with diced tomato and ground roasted peanuts.
Bhumichitr turns grilled eggplant into a spicy sauce that I like called nam prik, which means “chili water.” To make it, he wraps a small eggplant in foil with fresh hot peppers, garlic, shallots and tomato and grills the packet until the vegetables begin to soften. After pounding them to a soft paste, he stirs in lemon juice, soy sauce, salt and sugar. He serves it to accompany fresh or lightly cooked vegetables.
When I have slim eggplants, I sometimes prepare them as a quick Vietnamese saute with onions, ginger, soy sauce and hot pepper sauce, or as a vegetable medley with zucchini, fresh mint and sweet and hot peppers. (The recipe is below.)
Faye Levy is the author of 30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes.
This recipe is from Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook. My Thai chef friend, Somchit Singchalee, taught me that the Thais, unlike the French, like to saute their shallots until brown. Thais season dishes like this with fish sauce but vegetarians omit it.
Serve this dish warm or at room temperature with rice, preferably jasmine, and bottled hot sauce.
Makes 3 or 4 servings as a side dish
225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) small, slim eggplants225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) zucchini or white squash (Hebrew kishuim)1 large sweet, red pepper3 Tbsp. vegetable oil1 medium shallot or white part of green onion, sliced2 large garlic cloves, minced1 or 2 hot peppers, preferably red2 to 4 tsp. soy sauce1 cup fresh mint leaves fresh mint sprigs (for garnish)
Halve eggplants lengthwise and slice about 6 mm. (1⁄4 inch) thick. Cut zucchini the same way. Cut sweet pepper in strips 1 cm. (about 1⁄2 inch) wide; cut each strip in two crosswise.
Heat oil in a large skillet, add shallot and saute over medium heat until light brown. Add eggplant and sweet pepper and saute 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic, hot peppers and zucchini and saute for 1 minute. Add soy sauce and cook over low heat for 1 minute or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Off heat, add mint leaves and stir to wilt them slightly. Serve garnished with mint sprigs.
This recipe is from Simple Asian Meals.
Author Nina Simonds writes: “Grilling vegetables may not be the traditional method favored in China, but the technique flash cooks and accentuates the flavor of food in a way similar to stir-frying.” She recommends serving the zucchini as a side dish for grilled or roasted meats or seafood.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
5 medium zucchini (about 900 gr. or 2 pounds), rinsed and drained2 Tbsp. olive or canola oil1 tsp. salt1⁄4 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper
Lemon-Soy Dressing:3 Tbsp soy sauce2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice11⁄2 Tbsp minced garlic11⁄2 Tbsp sugar
Trim the ends of the zucchini and discard. Cut each in half lengthwise, then cut in half lengthwise again so you have four wedges of zucchini. Toss with the oil, salt and pepper to coat.
Prepare a medium-hot fire for grilling or preheat a gas grill. Arrange a rack 7.5 to 10 cm. (3 to 4 inches) from the heat. Arrange the zucchini on the grill rack (in batches, if necessary) and grill for about 5 minutes on each side, until slightly golden at the edges and very tender. Test with the tip of a knife; It should pierce the zucchini easily. Remove from grill and cut into 1-cm- (about 1⁄2-inch)-wide pieces. Arrange on a serving platter.
Meanwhile, prepare the dressing: Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour the Lemon–Soy Dressing over the zucchini. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Variation: Add 1 Tbsp dried herbs or 3 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs such as basil, dill, oregano or tarragon to the dressing for additional flavor.